By Marianne Walthier
Over the past year, many news outlets reported a boom in pet adoptions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rescue organizations, shelters and breeders observed a noticeable increase in demand, and there were many anecdotal stories of people desperately searching for four-legged companions to stave off boredom and loneliness. The Dumb Friends League likewise saw an increase in adoption interest, but even more so in fostering animals. Because the adoptions lobby was forced to close for a period of time, they launched a foster to adopt program, which was tremendously successful). Now, as people begin to transition to their previous lives by returning to offices or school campuses and more dynamic social lives, what will happen to animals who have never been accustomed to spending much time alone?
I interviewed Jess Cytron, the League’s manager of animal experience, for this article. Jess joined the League during the pandemic and had previously worked at a limited admission shelter in Fort Collins from 2013 through 2020. They have a breadth of experience having held several positions, including shelter manager and foster and transfer program coordinator. Their primary focus has been on the behavioral well-being of dogs, although they have a passion for cat behavior as well and are learning as much as possible about all animal behavior. At the League, Jess is managing both the Behavior/Enrichment and Transfer departments.
The biggest challenge will likely be for animals adopted during 2020 who may have experienced their owners exclusively on their “Covid routine.” There will undoubtedly be an adjustment period as people leave their homes more frequently and for longer periods of time. Jess recommends that people prepare ahead of time for this transition by gradually shaking up the routine and pairing those changes with positive reinforcement that includes high-value treats and enriching experiences. According to Jess, “Using items such as food puzzles, licky mats, kongs, wobble kongs and other food-based enrichment can be a helpful positive reinforcer as you acclimate your pet to your updated routine.” Jess added that “overwhelming the pet with a flooding of alone time right away could be really detrimental to them . . . go slow and avoid making a ‘big deal’ of any event preceding or following a separation event.” It is important to remain calm as you leave and enter your home, as this will help your pet stay calm as well.
Cats might also experience an adjustment period despite the widely held belief that they are far more independent than dogs. They are more routine-focused than we realize. Jess is “particularly curious about new cats/kittens in 2020 having to adjust to extended time away from their people for the first time in 2021 . . . they may struggle with boredom and under-stimulation when their people are away and overstimulation when they come home.”
Jess reminded us that the League provides a great resource to the community with the Behavior Helpline, which allows a patron to set up a scheduled phone call with a Behavior team member to talk through issues they are experiencing with their pet. In addition, pet owners may access the social media pages of trusted positive trainers in their areas. Jess hopes that people turn to their local behavior professionals, including the League’s resources, early to get help before problem behaviors become overwhelming. In so doing, we can ensure a smooth transition for our beloved furry companions, who undeniably have been instrumental in getting us through a very tough year.